By that I mean a tendency or eagerness among journalists “to identify and report on trends and developments that seem so exceptional or frightening as to be without precedent.”
This is not to characterize journalists “as morbid or macabre in their newsgathering,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But they respond with undeniable excitement and energy when trends of exceptional and hazardous proportion seem to being taking hold.”
I invoke “the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic” in chapters devoted to the myth of the crack baby and the myth of superlative reporting in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.
About Katrina coverage, I write that the hurricane–which struck five years ago this month–seemed to unleash “a disaster of almost biblical proportion: Storms and floods, death and mayhem; criminal gangs run amok in a city collapsing in chaos. New Orleans seemed to promise a descent into the truly apocalyptic. And for a time the reporting matched that premise: It was as if the some of most dreadful events imaginable were taking place in New Orleans.”
But little of the apocalyptic reporting proved true.
The “perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic” reemerged in the more recent coverage of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which President Barack Obama called “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.”
News coverage anticipated near-apocalyptic effects, that the BP oil spill could ruin the Gulf, spread across Florida’s beaches, and be propelled by the loop current up the East Coast, “all the way to Cape Hatteras off North Carolina” by July or August.
“There’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good—I think they lied about the size of the spill—but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts.”
Van Heerden was further quoted as saying, “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”
Time, in a revealing contrarian assessment that asked whether damage from the Gulf spill was exaggerated, offered four reasons why the environmental consequences have been less than dire.
First, the BP oil, unlike that from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, “is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient.”
Such assessments are not without challenges, of course. But the near-apocalyptic predictions of spring and early summer simply haven’t held up.
As USA Today noted in an editorial, the Gulf of Mexico “is an enormous and surprisingly resilient place. The spilled oil … would fill the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans about one-sixth full. If that sounds like a lot—and perhaps to some it doesn’t—consider that it would take about 554 million Superdomes to fill the Gulf of Mexico.”
Now that, the newspaper said, is “a strikingly different image from one emblazoned in people’s mind by the early reaction.”
And the sometimes over-the-top coverage of the Gulf spill offers another reminder to journalists about resisting the impulse to indulge in the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic, to recognize that the truly apocalyptic–the “worst environmental disaster” of all time–arrives very rarely.